by Idiare Atimomo
The woman got into the bus strapping a baby to her back. As she wobbled in, she also led in front of her a little girl of about two years. I was seated at the back seat and watched her maneuver her way in. She sat down and made the little girl sit down beside her. I watched with keen interest the exchange I sensed was soon to follow. Seated on the seat beside the lady with the child was another woman. Motherly and probably in her 30’s, she immediately put on a scowl as she watched the woman with the two children. What was the reason for her annoyance?
The lady with the children was clearly Hausa. She had the tribal marks and smelt of ‘turare’, the distinctive perfume synonymous with the Hausa peoples of Nigeria . She looked frail physically and weak financially. The other lady was Yoruba and looked physically and financially stable. She expected the Hausa lady to carry her daughter on her lap so she asked ‘Is she going to sit down?’ with enough sarcasm to drown a whale, implying her doubts on the woman’s ability to pay for two seats.
‘I go carry my pikin’ came the confident response from the Hausa woman as she immediately lifted her daughter onto her lap. There was something about the way she replied; it was so dignified and inconsistent with her fragile and helpless frame.
I noticed a change in the Yoruba woman’s countenance; she immediately offered to help carry the daughter and the mother agreed. I just sat in that bus astounded by that brief yet powerful exchange. How one woman rose above her lowly status to defend her right to be treated with respect. How another woman tapped into her motherly instinct and forgot her prejudices. Yet it was that initial stand taken by the Hausa woman that opened this flood gate.
Prejudice walks around on two legs and has two arms. If you look closely through a mirror you just might see yourself. It is the way people think, act and speak with petty prejudices about certain ethnic groups that especially rankles. ‘Ibos are so ___’, ‘Hausas can be so ___’, ‘Tivs are so ___’ and on and on we go, reducing whole peoples to half formed stereotypes that are too general to be accurate.
Prejudices may not seem very significant but when left unchecked, they can form the ingredients of a deadly cocktail reminiscent of the Rwandan genocide. Anyone who has watched the movie ‘Sometimes in April’ will easily understand this train of thought. For 100 or so days, men slaughtered their fellow citizens because of the continuous propaganda on the radio describing another ethnic group as cockroaches for whom using a bullet to kill would be a waste of resources, ‘Use the machete and save your bullets’ was the message.
Those who spread these prejudices would quickly describe Hitler as a devil but would not acknowledge their similar ancestry with him because they lack the power to enforce their prejudices the way he had and did. When I confront people with their prejudices, they downplay it and think I am just exaggerating. I have seen otherwise sane students begin to molest a fellow student all because he was wearing a jellabia on the night of M.K.O Abiola’s death. The conclusion was that ‘they’ had killed him. ‘They’ there being Hausas, my colleagues were resolved to kill anything that so much as looked or dressed Hausa. It turned out the young man was actually Ibo and this was what saved his life that day.
I stood there that cold, wet night in University of Ibadan stupefied by what I had nearly just witnessed. How is it that we so quickly forget the things that make us similar and grab the things that separate us? Why do we act like our differences matter more than the common humanity which we all so generously share as a gift from God? Like the woman on the bus was so sharply reminded, she had more in common with the Hausa lady than she realized. They were both mothers, though from different ethnic groups. The issues they faced on a daily basis were not too different.
My challenge to you is to stand on the side of those who will see similarities more than differences especially as it relates to social interaction amongst ethnic nationalities. Will you be one of those parents who reject a young man or woman from another tribe as a bride or groom for your child not on the grounds of character but on mere tribe? Will you be one of those who vote for a politician because of where he is from? Will you be the one who casts the first stone when someone is about to be lynched just because he is from a ‘troublesome’ tribe?
The future we all dream of requires a sharp ‘no’ to these questions. It is the smallest price we can pay to move forward. Let us all be counted on the right side. The future is counting on you.